BERLIN — After being injured fighting the Syrian government, 31-year-old Mohannad reached his home in Frankfurt, Germany, with a simple plan: rest, recuperate, then rejoin the fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As related in German newspaper accounts, which by law couldn’t identify him by his full name, Mohannad even transferred the equivalent of $6,800 to a Syrian bank for use by the terror organization. With that as evidence that he was supporting a terrorist organization, German authorities seized his passport and prevented him from returning to Turkey — the jumping-off point for radicals seeking to join the fight in Syria.
But Mohannad was the exception. Officials concede that they rarely have such an extensive file against so-called “jihadi-tourists” to stop them from reaching Turkey — and Syria beyond.
At least 320 Germans and more than 2,000 other Europeans are thought to have made the trip — so many that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan has asked European nations to stop their citizens wanting to join the fight in Syria and now Iraq from traveling to Turkey.
“Preventing people from traveling is really difficult,” said Stefan Mayer, spokesman for Germany’s national intelligence agency. “We need actionable evidence, evidence we can use in court. Unless we can prove they’ve worked for a foreign terror organization before, the law doesn’t make it easy to stop someone from making the journey.”
German courts consistently have returned seized passports before the bearers have actually broken any laws.
European Union Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove this month noted that the phenomenon of young Muslims leaving Europe to fight elsewhere is decades old. But the current numbers dwarf previous migrations. He described the current flow as “huge.”
“Compared to previous jihads, it’s unprecedented,” he said.
The trend is openly discussed in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Italy. Europe has long needed immigrant labor, but it has done little to integrate those who come from Muslim regions — North Africa, Pakistan and the Middle East. Their children often grow up without close ties to their adopted nations and end up finding a sense of community online and in the radical splinters of Islam set up to prey upon the lost.
Claudia Dantschke, a German specialist in Islam who tries to identify and counsel families where the young people are at risk of choosing the fight, says the official reaction struggles to keep up with the increased intensity of recruiting actions.
“The public awareness for the problem of young people from Germany joining the jihad has increased, so more families are turning to us for help,” she wrote in an email.
But that search for help is countered by what she said was “a massive increase in propaganda from recruiters" for ISIL, triggered by the group’s expansion in Syria and Iraq, where in the past three weeks it has seized control of major cities.
“A higher number of young people (are) leaving the country with the aim to join the group,” Dantschke said. “They have Germans spreading their propaganda on Facebook in German, in groups frequented by teenagers and on pages of people they identify with. The extent and effect of this radical direct approach is a new thing.”
How they get into Syria has been much simpler: Turkey.
For at least two years, Turkey has done little to stop would-be fighters from crossing its border into Syria. The lack of official action was an attempt to support the forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and it had unofficial support from nations around the world, including the United States.
But while some of those forces were and remain moderate and dedicated to increasing freedom and democracy in a repressive nation, more and more of the new recruits were seeking to join forces such as the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, and ISIL, an organization that began as al-Qaida in Iraq and has split from al-Qaida over tactics and goals.
How many foreigners have fought in Syria is uncertain. Some reports have placed the number of foreigners fighting on the Syrian rebels’ behalf at 12,000, with the European share of that at 2,000. But a European Union official who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn’t allowed to speak on the record said the number could be higher. “The numbers are more a floor than a ceiling,” he said.
Perhaps most worrying to anti-terror experts is that ISIL is now thought to have a war chest worth from several hundred million dollars up to $2 billion. Magnus Ranstorp, a leading anti-terror expert now at the Swedish Defense College, said the concern comes from the fact that instead of relying on donations, ISIL now has what he called “360-degree revenue streams” — meaning revenue from all directions.
For comparison’ sake, the current ISIL war chest is thought to be at least 50 times larger than what Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida had at its disposal at its peak. The revenue comes in through kidnapping ransoms, the sale of antiquities, the sale of oil and natural gas from the fields ISIL has seized, plunder from captured banks, as well as road tolls and taxes levied on populations where ISIL holds sway.
The funds allow ISIL to better equip, and better maintain, a larger force.
Ranstorp said he is certain that estimates of the number of Europeans who’ve joined the fight are far below the actual numbers. With ISIL's success in Iraq, there’s no reason to think the trend will reverse soon.
“We’ve had huge waves going down there after the last couple periods of Ramadan,” Ranstop said, referring to the Muslim holy month of fasting that begins this weekend. “We’ll see what happens this year.”
Also alarming is that although Europeans in the past generally made short trips into Syria and then returned home, many now appear to be committed to stay.
“ISIS today is burning their passports, then issuing their own,” Ranstop noted, referring to ISIL's alternate name, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The ISIL passport isn’t valid for international travel, but that’s not the point in a movement meant to cement an identity through religious zeal.
Anti-terror workers and experts are concerned that those who do return are coming back both radicalized and trained in how to use small arms and explosives.
Already, 100 fighters have returned to Germany. German intelligence officials say that most appear to have no interest in actions in Europe. Still, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the German national intelligence agency, recently called these people “a special security risk. They are closely monitored.”
Still, overall, there are an estimated 43,000 “radical Islamists” in Germany alone. With such large numbers, not all can be monitored all the time. In May, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, three people were shot to death, allegedly by a returning fighter. Anti-terror officials have warned Europeans to expect more, similar, attacks.
Thomas Strobl, a member of the German Parliament, recently suggested a law allowing the nation to strip “German jihadists” of citizenship. But removing citizenship is difficult, unpopular and isn’t thought likely to be successful.
More and more, Europeans are convinced that the only real success in this fight against radical fighters who return is to get to the next generation before they leave to join the fight.